A tale of two chancellors promises a decisive follow-up as budget looms

Politics

There are two ways of telling the Rishi Sunak story of the past 12 months.

The widespread narrative is of a chancellor who was brought in to do the prime minister’s bidding but ended up out-performing his boss.

In this tale, Mr Sunak’s competent response to the coronavirus pandemic, alongside eye-catching policies like “eat out to help out”, made him the darling of the Conservative party and popular across the country too.

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Chancellor pressed on road map out of lockdown

On paper, none of that can be quibbled with.

There is an alternative version of how the last year played out though.

This second tale is of a chancellor too eager to open up the economy given restlessly high levels of infections.

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It’s of a cabinet minister who told the country to “live without fear” when caution was perhaps better advised.

And it’s a story that ends with Mr Sunak being forced into a screeching U-turn, extending his support schemes in the face of a second COVID-19 wave and putting his advice to “learn to live with the virus” on ice until the vaccines arrive.

As my colleague Sam Coates has previously noted, the chancellor got away with this at the time because his “political stock” was high.

The four stages of England's lockdown lifting

That said, some in Westminster have pointed out Mr Sunak has seemed less vocal of late and perhaps more humble in the face of science.

But talking to MPs (and looking at approval ratings) it’s clear this more pessimistic reading of the pandemic has not dented the chancellor’s popularity.

“Getting the balance right is always going to be tricky, but the chancellor has provided a very useful creative tension against the public health establishment,” said one Conservative backbencher.

This political clout, in a cabinet often cast as distinctly underwhelming, perhaps means Mr Sunak is in the perfect position to deliver hard truths about the future.

Tory MPs are concerned about what’s lurking in his budget box though.

“Next Wednesday is a bigger moment for him than anyone realises – is he the classical liberal, small state, low tax chancellor we all think and hope he is?”, said one of them.

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The answer to that may take time to emerge and Mr Sunak could get something of a honeymoon in the coming months as the country is unlocked and economic activity picks up.

But that may prove a false dawn by autumn when the COVID support schemes are fully withdrawn and the task of levelling public finances really begins to bite.

It’s an evergreen rule of politics that it’s easier to give money away than claw it back.

The coming story of Rishi Sunak may have more of an impact on his standing than any of the tales of the last twelve months.

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